Actions

Work Header

Quicksilver in the hand

Chapter Text

New York was terrifying.

It was bigger and louder and brighter and faster and dirtier - and she made herself stop there because nobody ever got to be a good writer if they ran on like that in their own head. It was terrifying in all the ways she’d known it would be, but knowing it didn’t make it any easier to cope with once she was there. Nobody cared about Montreal’s deb of the year and she had that expression about big fish in small ponds swimming about her head for days, driving her mad.

The first week, she cried herself to sleep every night asking why she hadn’t just married Chris Blaine when she had the chance, and stayed home to have his baby where everybody knew her and didn’t expect anything more from her than that. She could have married Eckleberg, even. He thought she was smart and beautiful and unique and talented and there wasn’t anything wrong with liking that. She could have staged mediocre plays with his money until she had a baby, and that would still have been more than any girl at her coming out ball had done or ever would do.

But New York was full of girls who were smart and beautiful and unique and talented, and most of them were working at Vanity Fair and knew their way round the city and a one-liner better than Paula could manage in a hundred years. They wore their skirts and their hair shorter than anyone in Montreal ever dared, and she just knew they were looking down their noses at the Canadian country girl who’d turned up thinking she could compete.

 

On the first Friday night she went out to the Stork Club with a crowd of people from the magazine and drank bootlegged gin fizz. At midnight she found herself holding the purse of a girl named Sylvia while she was sick behind the nightclub. Sylvia didn’t want to go home because she thought everyone would laugh at her even though she was quite possibly the sharpest, chicest girl on Vanity Fair, so Paula sat with her in a diner on the corner and drank coffee until Sylvia felt better. Then they went back to the club arm in arm, and when the society editor asked what had happened to them Sylvia blinked with exaggerated surprise and drawled,

“We were just powdering our noses,” and everybody fell about laughing.

Which only went to show, Paula decided, that sometimes it wasn’t so much what you said as how you said it. And how much your audience had been drinking.

She and Sylvia sat at the edge of the group, now the most sober people there by a very long way, and by the time everybody stumbled home in the small hours of Saturday morning Paula had a new best friend.

After that New York was wonderful. 

 

 

She cut her hair shorter and had a dress made by Sylvia’s dressmaker. Before it was finished a girl on the fashion desk asked her about the one she was wearing, a blue dress Gaby had made her, and Paula was so surprised she said,

“This? Oh, a French nightclub hostess in Montreal made me this.”

Which was entirely and perfectly true, and she hadn’t meant to be shocking, but the girl’s eyes widened in delight.

“Oh, how wonderful! My parents would absolutely die if they knew I was wearing something made by a nightclub hostess!”

She said hostess in the exact opposite way that Jake meant it and Paula had a sudden awful feeling like she’d betrayed him, like she’d betrayed Gaby, like she was using them both and everything they meant to her just to be outré and impress a girl she didn’t even know on a silly magazine.

“No, she really is a hostess, at a very fashionable club in Montreal! The Prince of Wales went there – she made me my dress for the ball with the Prince of Wales too…”

But that only made things worse. Even in America it seemed that being the girl who’d danced with the Prince of Wales was something to be proud of, because before the day was out everybody knew about Paula’s weekend with His Royal Highness and she’d told the story of her terrible curtsey and the punctuality prize to six different people. It wasn’t that she couldn’t get a good story out of it – if Paula had learned anything in the last few years, it was how to turn mortification into anecdote – but that wasn’t what she wanted to be known for in New York.

 

 

The first letter she wrote to Jake, she wrote that evening with her own foolish story echoing in her ears. Alone in her aunt’s stuffy apartment, she could almost see the mocking look on his face when he’d called her the deb of the year. Or was mocking the right word for it? Perhaps it wasn’t. He’d been teasing her, of course he had, but in the end he’d never said anything really cruel, had he? Nothing to compare with what she’d said to him, when she’d had an audience she knew would laugh at her jokes.

She took an hour to write half a page and when she read it back she didn’t recognise herself in it. It was stiff and artificial and dull, and she was stuck in the middle of a sentence unable to decide if she ought to use the word “scintillating” or not. Would he know what it meant? Would he think she was deliberately choosing words he didn’t know, to make fun of him? Would he just skip it, if he didn’t know what it meant, or would he pause, move his lips and try to puzzle out how to say it? He wouldn’t ask anybody, she was sure about that. Was there a dictionary anywhere at the club where he could look it up? It hardly seemed likely. Even if there was, he’d be too proud to use it. So she should choose a different word, then. But she couldn’t find one. And perhaps he expected it of her – that she should have an extensive vocabulary that sometimes went over his head. He’d asked her to help him with his testimony to the government inquiry panel, he liked that about her. He’d as good as said so. He had sat there in his shirt sleeves, sprawled loose-limbed beside her in the quiet of the empty club while she wrote for him, folding paper darts out of their discarded drafts and watching her write. Telling her what he thought so she could find the words for him.

And then afterwards – afterwards, they had turned to each other –

Paula threw away her terrible stilted letter and went to bed to think about afterwards with Jake.

 

 

In the morning she wrote him five pages without stopping or editing (well, hardly editing). She read it once and then sent it.

But he didn’t write back.

 

 

Chris Blaine wrote to her. He told her about his baby, and about Sally and his mother and his father and Eckleberg and how Benny had died and Gaby was broken-hearted.

Paula wrote to Gaby to say how sorry she was, and got a very sweet card back from her. Somebody had clearly helped her write it, but Gaby’s voice came through anyway. She said that she was going with Jake and Chris to take his ashes to France, and that Chris’s baby was beautiful and that she thought Jake was lonely.

Paula wrote to him again then, but this time she knew better than to expect an answer. She didn’t expect anything, really she didn’t. She wrote almost as if she were keeping a diary that maybe he would read and maybe he wouldn’t, and this time she didn’t even read it through before she sent it. That way if he did read it, it would be more like talking to him. More spontaneous. No time to second guess anything.

 

 

Later she heard from her mother that he and Chris had left for France, so perhaps he never got her letter. Maybe he’d met a girl and no one had told her. He and Gaby had always liked each other. Perhaps they were consoling each other now, in France. Perhaps that was what Gaby had meant. It wasn’t really her business any more, after all.

She told herself that a number of times, but it wasn’t quite enough to shake the memory of afterwards in the club with him.

 

***

 

Sylvia introduced her to Jeremy. He was a writer and he knew people and once she and Sylvia got rooms together he took to calling round most evenings after they finished work at the magazine. He would mix horrible strong cocktails that they drank while making faces at each other behind his back. 

That aside, he was everything she wanted in a man. He was terribly good looking, and drawlingly witty, and he knew everywhere you could get a drink between Central Park and 42nd Street: he’d read everything good and had something interesting to say about all of it. And he only pushed enough to make his intentions clear but not enough to be tedious.

She let Jeremy read Pass the Sugar, Daddy with severe misgivings and a pre-emptive description of that disastrous opening night in Montreal.  The whole debacle was more bearable once she’d turned it into a funny story at her own expense, and each time she told it she took a step further away from the horror of watching it happen.

“Sounds to me like a provincial audience wasn’t ready for you,” he’d said when she’d finished telling him about the mortifying reviews. “Let me read it, I’ll tell you if it’s any good or not.”

She knew he was flattering her, but knowing somebody is flattering you doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to hear. Nicer to hear than somebody being honest with you, anyway, although she knew one was better for her writing than the other.

So she gave him her manuscript to read. If he thought it was dreadful (which it probably was) then she hadn’t left him any room to criticise because she’d covered all that herself. They could laugh together about how appalling her early work was.

 

But he actually telephoned her, raving about it.

“Paula, you have to put this on somewhere! Will you come and talk to Max with me? He knows people, this is exactly the sort of thing he’s looking for!”

“Max is looking for shows people walk out of before the interval? I know I’m from out of town Jeremy, but that doesn’t sound like there would be any money in it.”

“Paula, stop it! Those Canadian hicks didn’t know what hit them, this is great! You’ll see! Just let me give it to Max, and I swear he’ll snap it up – this is exactly the play New York needs. You’ll see.”

 

And she did see, because Jeremy turned out to be absolutely right. Max snapped it up. Maybe New York didn’t need her play, but New York certainly seemed to want it. The opening night was like the mirror image of the Montreal opening. From the very first line the audience was on their side, laughing at everything, and that seemed to inspire the actors to deliver everything better, tighter, with timing so impeccable they improved every word she’d written. It wasn’t entirely about how much your audience had had to drink, she decided. She didn’t know what it was about, but whatever it was, they’d found it.

The evening review raved about it.

“Are you sure they don’t owe Max money?” she couldn’t help asking.

“Oh, probably. A lot of people owe Max money. But they still write bad reviews when they see bad plays,” Jeremy told her.

Sylvia winked at her over the table and waggled her eyebrows in what Paula assumed was a sign that Jeremy liked her as much as he liked her play. That was old news, but sitting in a bar drinking illegal Canadian whiskey, surrounded by her new friends and new success, she felt a sudden rush of affection for him. She had a play on stage in New York! And it was a success!

 

Jeremy took her home, and she let him come up.

 

 

It was nice, he was nice, and if she hadn’t had a point of comparison she might have been entirely satisfied with the whole affair.

 

 

But she did have a point of comparison.

 

When she slipped away to the bathroom to take care of things afterwards, she couldn’t help feeling a little flat, as if she’d been promised something and then been let down. Jeremy was entirely right for her: he was educated and talented and well-read and they had everything in common. So why was she looking at herself in the mirror in the middle of the night feeling like the risk wasn’t worth it?

When he left, he called one of her best lines over his shoulder to her with a smile. One of those lines she’d taken word for word from Jake and that none of the actors ever said anything like how had Jake said it. Paula surprised herself utterly by bursting into tears as soon the door closed behind him.

 

The crying jag didn’t last long. Paula washed her face without looking in the mirror and was very careful not to think about what had caused it.

He wasn’t answering her letters, and that was all the answer she needed.                                 

 

 

She thought she saw him on 5th Avenue once. She could tell by his walk, by the tilt of his head, by the part in his hair that it was him, even from this far away, and her heart clenched and leapt in her chest like a bird. She almost ran to catch up with him, but just before she made a colossal fool of herself he turned to cross the street and she saw that it wasn’t Jake at all. He looked nothing like Jake, she couldn’t imagine how she’d even mistaken him for Jake.

Jake was in France, and he didn’t write back, so why on earth did she think he was going to appear out of the blue in New York? Just to see her? You are being a silly little girl, Paula Ashley, she told herself as she fought to get her breathing under control again. It was because she’d been running, in these heels. That was all it was.

She stopped and watched the man who looked nothing like Jake walk away, and the lunchtime crowd kept walking around her. Nobody cared that she’d just run the length of 5th Avenue after a man who’d most likely forgotten her name and wasn’t even in the country. Paula straightened her hat and checked her wristwatch and after a moment she turned back the way she had come with what she hoped was the air of a girl about town with somewhere important to be.

When she pushed open the door to the Vanity Fair office her hands were still shaking.

 

**

 

Jake turned up unannounced in March. He didn’t write, he didn’t wire, he could have been married or dead or in jail for all Paula knew, until one night she turned around and there was somebody there.

She almost didn’t look around. A girl couldn’t spend her life looking over her shoulder for somebody who wasn’t there – when a love affair was over, it was over. Only a fool would carry a torch for a man like Jake, and Paula was determined not to be a fool. She had practiced, in nightclubs, not looking. Out of the corner of her eye she’d see somebody who reminded her of Jake, and she would look the other way for as long as she could, just to prove to herself that she could do it.

Tonight she looked around.

She wasn’t thinking, she looked around, and there he was. Grinning at her from the end of the alley, wearing a very good suit, and her treacherous heart thumped so hard she could hardly breathe.

“You’re still using my lines,” he said.